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Action need to halt the decline of Athlone's main streets

Story by Tom Kelly

Thursday, 1st November, 2012 1:30pm

Westmeath Independent editorial

A new survey which identified Athlone as a blackspot for empty retail units will not come as much of a surprise to many people in this region.

The report found that the town had more 'high street' retail vacancies than Limerick, Cork, Belfast, Sligo, Kilkenny, Dublin, Galway or Killarney.

Property consultants CBRE carried out the study in the nine towns and cities between July and September this year.

A retail vacancy rate of 18.2% was recorded on Church Street and Dublingate Street in Athlone. This was the highest vacancy rate among the locations surveyed.

In the last year, the Westmeath Independent carried out two similar surveys in an attempt to draw attention to the issue.

In early March last, we covered the length of Sean Costello Street and continued through Mardyke Street, Dublingate Street, Church Street, Custume Place, Barrack Street, Pearse Street and Connaught Street.

On the first occasion - in April 2011 - we found that 24.6% of units along this route were unoccupied, with the majority of these carrying notices advertising them for rental.

Eleven months on, we counted a total of 204 commercial and office premises on the same route. Of these, 57 (or 27.9%) of the units were unoccupied.

We only included units which faced directly onto the streets in question, so shops inside the Athlone Towncentre, Left Bank Mall and Golden Island retail areas did not feature in our total.

So, if the level of the problem is, or at least, should be clearly apparent, there has unfortunately been little if any response from the powers that be.

Although, the property consultants behind the survey, CBRE, attributed some of the problem to the strength of the adjacent Athlone Towncentre, they also stressed that in locations where there had been a focus on upgrading the main streets and enhancing the appeal of the location to shoppers, vacancy levels were lower.

It's a point also made this week by Athlone Towncentre chief John O'Sullivan when he criticised the condition of the town's main street and referred to the failure of planned schemes to invigorate the urban landscape of the town centre.

The retail sector has suffered significantly during the recession. The Government's focus, up to now, has been on facilitating and developing exports. But it is now plainly obvious that without an upsurge in domestic spending, we will remain in the economic doldrums.

The high level of retail vacancies in Athlone is both a symptom of and a result of that lack of consumer confidence.

Athlone's retail problem is a microcosm of the national situation. Locally, we need imaginative schemes to encourage businesses to locate in the empty town centre units.

A deferred rates scheme, focused on empty towncentre retail properties, and which enables small businesses to take the gamble, whilst paying their fair share of rates over a longer period, is one option.

The local authority, be it Athlone Town Council, Westmeath County Council or some new Athlone municipal district, also needs to focus on upgrading Athlone's main streets.

The condition of the footpaths and roads in the centre of the town is simply not acceptable.

And, of course, as a nation we need to lessen the millstone of debt on our backs in order to stimulate consumer spending.

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